We are going to dive into developing a middle attack. First, the coach needs to be comfortable with what is desired from the middle attack, who can accomplish the task, and the keys for implementing a middle attack into your offense. The type of middle attack you implement is based on the following factors:
- What are the reception abilities of your team? Three systems merit consideration when developing your middle attack. The first is an in-system offense where the pass is at the net, and the setter can easily set any attacker. The second is a semi-system offense where the pass takes the setter off the net (6′-10′). In this situation, we need a way to get the ball to the middle hitter to prevent the middle blocker from releasing to an outside attacker. The third system is an out-of-system offense, where the setter cannot get the ball to the middle hitter.
- How consistent and accurate is the setter? The faster speed of the middle attack will require a setter that possesses good movement abilities and can set with great accuracy.
- What are the movement and technical abilities of the hitters? Do they possess the movement, armswing mechanics, and visual abilities to put themselves into a position to attack in a variety of scenarios?
Too often, coaches pattern the middle attack based on the coach’s desires or what is fashionable rather than the players’ abilities. The essential component of the middle attack is getting a quality swing at the ball that will score, or if not scoring, placing stress on both the block and the backrow defenders.
There are many tempos to attack the middle of the court. If your team is not a proficient serve-receive team, or the setter has accuracy challenges, you should slow down the tempo of the middle attack. If the passers can place the ball close to the net (2′ to 5′), a faster-tempo middle attack will increase pressure on the blockers.
Goals of the Middle Attack
The are several goals for the middle attack.
The first goal is to score with the middle hitter. You can score with various tempos while attacking various net locations. A fast offense with your middle attacker that does not result in a high percentage of kills is wasting a scoring opportunity. The speed of the middle attack should correlate to the abilities of the setter and the hitter.
The second goal is to pressure the outside blocker to decide if they should help with the middle attack or focus on their outside hitter. The speed of the offense should make it challenging for the outside blocker to help with a middle attack and still form an effective block on the outside attack.
The third goal is to move the middle blocker away from a primary outside attacker. If the middle hitter attacks a zone of the net away from a primary attacker, will that force the middle blocker to cover the increased distance to get to the outside or backrow hitter to block?
The Tempo of the Middle Attack
Many teams opt for a quick attack from the middle, but the Cuban women’s team achieved Olympic Gold by utilizing a slower middle attack. This approach enabled them to maintain the middle hitters’ involvement in the offense, even when the setter was away from the net due to the pass. Coaches need not feel obligated to always go for a fast attack with the middle attacker.
This article will focus on the keys for a fast-tempo middle attack with the hitter staying in front of the setter. In an upcoming article, we will focus on having the middle attacker go behind the setter to attack.
First is the quick attack close to the setter, commonly termed a “1” or “A” set. When executed correctly, the “1” set will place pressure on the middle blocker to defend both this set and still be able to block the outside attack successfully. A successful quick 1 set mandates the correct positioning of the middle hitter relative to the setter. In addition to the positioning, there must be a consistent rhythm between the hitter jumping and the setter contacting the ball. In the photo on the left, you see how the middle hitter will adjust their approach when the pass mandates the setter move along the net. The middle hitter strives to position themselves next to the setter and off the back foot of the setter.
As mentioned earlier, consistent timing of the quick attack is essential. Some coaches desire to have their middle hitter in the air when the ball is set, termed “0” tempo (see photo on the right). A tempo with this fast of timing can be effective, but there is a cautionary side to running at such a speed. A “0” tempo quick attack requires a perfect pass, and an accurate set, and quite often, due to the speed of the set, the hitter is restricted to only one shot.
Other coaches desire a little slower attack that will have the hitters leave the ground with the set, allowing the hitter to have more flexibility with where they place the attack. Lastly, an even slower tempo will have the hitter on their second step in their approach as the ball is being set. All tempos can be effective depending on the coach’s philosophy. You will see in the video below, the middle hitter will demonstrate leaving the ground when the ball is in the hands of the setter.
The timing of the ’31” set is similar to the “1” set but attacks a different area of the net. The “31” is a little more forgiving relative to the need for a good in-system pass. A good setter can implement the “31” even if the pass takes the setter off the net. A “31” accomplishes several items. First, it will keep the middle attacker involved in the offense when in-system or semi-system; second, it puts pressure on the RF blocker as two hitters (MF and LF) are now in the blocking zone of the RF blocker. Lastly, depending on how the middle blocker reacts, the “31” can open up the net for the RF attack.
In the video below, we detail the execution of both a “1” and “31” sets.
Video from “A Game Plan for Better Practices”
The tempo of the “1” and “31” are at the coach’s discretion. There are plus’ and minus’ for either a fast or slow tempo. A slower tempo increases the percentage of quality attacks but allows the blockers time to react. A faster tempo will place more pressure on the block but requires more exacting execution by the hitter and setter. Both set types demand the middle hitter place themselves in a correct court position at the net relative to the setter.
Keys to running the middle attack when in semi-system.
In volleyball, if the setter moves away from the net, the hitter needs to distance themselves from the setter to remain a viable option. During an in-system play with a “1” set, the hitter moves to the setter. However, during a semi-system play with a “1” set, the hitter needs to create an equilateral triangle where the distance between the setter and the net is equal to the distance between the middle hitter and the setter.
Since the distance from the setter to the hitter is greater, the hitter must slow the tempo of the jump. The set will be a flat trajectory set with the ball going from the hands of the setter to the fully extended hand of the hitter.
- Use a 3-step approach to the point of attack.
- The timing should be based on objective criteria, not subjective criteria. For example, the hitter is on the last step of their approach when the setter touches the ball (objective), or the coach says, “You’re a little late with your jump” (subjective).
- The eyes should focus on the ball, not the setter, to ensure the correct timing and location of the jump. Too often, the hitter watches the setter, but the setter is moving to get to the pass.
- Get the attack arm back as the feet leave the ground in preparation to swing.
- Drive the hand through the ball as if it’s a big hammer!
- The setter should set the ball that allows the attack to be at full arm extension by the hitter.
- The middle hitter should develop visual cues during their approach to get a feel for the block’s position.
One strategy I recommend is to aim for the middle attackers to receive 30%-35% of the sets. This helps balance the offense and prevents blockers from focusing on one area of the net. I suggest coaches experiment with different tempos of attack from the middle to find the best fit for their attackers’ abilities.
In my book, A Game Plan for Better Practices, we go into more detail with both written and video material on how to establish offensive concepts for your team.